Air Disasters: Why do we still rely on black boxes?
As the hunt for the black box recorder from Air Asia flight QZ8501 continues, Natalie Paris looks at attempts to improve the tracking of aircraft.
It is hoped that the recovery of the black box recorder of Air Asia flight QZ8501 will lead to answers as to why it crashed.
In the meantime, the lack of clues has led some to question - again - why aircraft are not automatically tracked in real-time from the ground.
When Malaysia Airline’s flight MH370 went missing on March 8 2014, many were surprised to discover that something as large as a Boeing 777 could effectively 'disappear off the radar'.
Shortly afterwards, a cross-industry task force (including representatives of the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) began looking into improvements that could be made in terms of tracking.
A report delivered last month suggested that airlines install systems that send information on longitude, latitude, altitude and local time at least once every 15 minutes – and more frequently in the event of an alert. A flight recorder attached to the aircraft exterior could automatically deploy if the situation worsens.
In conclusion, it asked airlines to check their tracking capabilities against new performance criteria and close any gaps within 12 months. Some airlines, according to IATA, already exceed the criteria but others, that use older planes, have a way to go.
Singapore: A specialist demonstrates the underwater locator beacon detectors being used to help find the flight data recorders of missing AirAsia aircraft, QZ8501.
“The public should be aware that there is no silver bullet solution on tracking,” said Tony Tyler, chief of IATA, adding that the sealing of doors to plane cockpits after 9/11 took several years to complete.
“In the meantime passengers can be reassured that MH370 was an extremely rare, if not unique event. Even though aircraft cannot be tracked in all cases, flying is safe. Over 100,000 flights operate safely every day. And new technology will play an important role in making the system even more robust.”
What have we learnt from recent accidents?
Current technology used to track planes is limited. All commercial craft are fitted with transponders that relay their location via radars – which will not work once the plane is more than 150 miles out at sea.
In addition to this, most airlines use the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). This does not emit a continual stream of data however, but sends a report at certain time intervals.
Black boxes contain all the flight data but don't share it, hence the need to find them.
Is there an alternative?
Canadian airline First Air uses a system that, according to a report in The Washington Post, makes its planes almost disappearance-proof, even though they sometimes fly to remote places beyond the limits of conventional radar.
The tracking system, designed by FLYHT Aerospace, is about the size of a hotel room safe. It begins transmitting data including coordinates, speed and altitude, to the ground via satellite when the plane suddenly loses altitude, banks sharply or experiences engine vibrations.
Indonesian navy crew carry what could be the tail of a missing AirAsia jet.
Why don’t all planes use satellite technology?
Cost is the main reason many airlines have been reluctant to routinely use satellite tracking.
Modern aircraft can use satellite tracking but the expense of handling large amounts of flight data means that this has been restricted to planes that fly over remote areas.
Even if data only begins streaming in unusual situations when the plane behaves unexpectedly, these systems are expensive to install, with the FLYHT Aerospace system reportedly costing $120,000 per plane.
The airline industry is likely to be cautious about spending money on new technologies that will only be used in very rare circumstances.
The use of any new technology would also require time and money to be set aside for the training of pilots and ground crew in the use of the systems.
Pilots unions, such as the British Airline Pilots Association, have in the past said that its members would have to be given significant reassurances that black box data would only be used during crash investigations.
A global agreement on tracking standards will not be easily obtained.
4. Human interference
Transponders and certain satellite-communications systems on the missing Malaysian airliner are believed to have been disabled before it disappeared, making it nearly impossible for civilian radar to track.
Flight MH370’s position was lost because ACARS – which collects on-board data such as location, altitude, heading and speed, and transmits it back – was switched off.
In some cases, pilots are obliged to turn the system off because the aircraft is lacking power or there is a fire on board. It has also been speculated that a hijacker could have switched the system off deliberately to prevent it from transmitting the plane's position.
Read more: AirAsia Flight QZ8501: What happened?
AirAsia QZ8501: A boy awaits news beside a list of passengers.
What can we expect in future?
The task force’s report will be considered by the ICAO with a view to ultimately developing a Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System.
A British satellite operator, Inmarsat, hopes that its “black box in the cloud” service will be used more widely. This is a similar system to that used by First Air, which sends data about an aircraft’s actions and systems, as well as events in the cockpit, to a central location such as an aviation safety authority.
Again, this cloud-based system can be triggered by certain defined events, such as an unapproved course deviation.
After the Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappearance, Inmarsat also offered to launch a global airline tracking service for commercial aircraft - for free. It suggested the service could be rolled out to all the 11,000 commercial passenger aircraft that are already equipped with an Inmarsat satellite connection – more than 90 per cent of the world’s long haul commercial fleet. It would aim to recoup the cost, according to a BBC report, with profits made from selling premium services.
To eradicate the possibility of human tampering, European safety officials have suggested to ICAO that a cost-effective solution could be to install emergency beacons that could be located by the satellite system Cospas, an international humanitarian search and rescue system.
The beacons would have their own batteries and would be remotely activated by a search and rescue centre.
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